I have always been taken by stories of mercy and reconciliation in the midst of conflict. These moments stand out like beacons of light in great darkness; they are often stark reminders of ways in which the proclamation of the gospel calls disciples of Jesus to act as agents of hope and peace in the midst of horror. The so-called “Christmas Truce” of 1914 is one such example, and in many ways the impulse toward peace and fraternal unity stands as a powerful example of how a Christian’s life should be lived in the fractured and contentious age in which we find ourselves. If we really are disciples—students—of Jesus, we must never forget that the child born in that dark age so many years ago reigns forever as the Prince of Peace.
The story of the truce which spontaneously broke out on December 25, 1914, is difficult to piece together with certainty. Indeed, it was doubted by historians for many years after the war. But eyewitness testimony, as well as punitive action by commanding officers and other evidence, offers clear evidence that something major happened on that day, and even the most skeptical historians now recognize that some 100,000 troops participated in the impromptu movement to cease fire and fellowship with enemy combatants.
The experience of the truce varied from place to place, but in general it began late on December 24th with German soldiers loudly singing Christmas hymns (in one instance, even a brass band is reported to have played). Initially, British soldiers were wary, but as the Germans continued to sing carols, the British began to recognize them and even to join in—the songs that are reported to have led to the truce are either Stille Nacht/Silent Night or Adeste Fideles/O Come, All Ye Faithful. As morning broke, a German soldier is reported to have emerged from his trench with hands outstretched in peace. Slowly, young men from both sides emerged from their trenches and met in “no-man’s land,” the piece of ground that separated the sides from each other (in some cases only 100 feet across). Gifts were exchanged, photos were taken, and in some cases even spontaneous soccer matches broke out.
The following day, that wretched, most pointless of wars resumed, and the Christmas truce would never be repeated at such a scale. Commanders on both sides worried that there would be mutiny in the ranks of everyday soldiers who would now recognize the humanity of those in the trenches across from them. Thus, artillery bombardment was standard practice for the rest of the war on Christmas day. But for those moments on Christmas day, 1914, to the singing of songs proclaiming the birth of the Prince of Peace, the light of the gospel emerged and shone brightly in the midst of that horrifying “war to end all wars.”
I do not wish to trivialize the horror of the first World War. Millions of men and women were ground in the gears of Nation-state hubris and avarice in an utterly pointless conflict. I think, though, that there are lessons for us from this small snapshot of peacemaking. We live in an age fraught with conflict and even hatred. It is not a violent conflict (yet), but forces are marshalled and the poles of the polis are being pushed further and further apart. All too often Christians find ourselves caught up in the conflict, joining forces on one side or the other and engaging in the trench warfare of divisive politics. This is a betrayal of the gospel and the Lord.
I want to suggest, at this moment, that we Christians lay down our arms and work toward peace. Understand: I’m not suggesting surrender, but peace. The first and most important step in this moment is to recognize the humanity of those who stand on opposite sides of the divisive issues of our day. See in the “other” the priceless life for whom God became flesh those many years ago. Remember, as we engage in discourse and debate, that he whom we claim to follow reigns now eternally as the Prince of Peace, and he calls us to be agents of the same. He calls us to resist the powerful currents of worldly power and greed and fear. We may do so joyously, remembering now the birth of our Lord into the darkness of this world. In doing so, we will not be swayed by the desperate efforts of the prince of this world to drive us further apart and force us into deepening conflict. Merry Christmas. May it be so.